‘Tipping point’: Why has Spain closed half its coal-fired power stations?

Spain on Tuesday shut down eight of its 15 coal-fired power stations.

'Tipping point': Why has Spain closed half its coal-fired power stations?
Illustration photo: AFP

Authorities made the move on grounds they were unprofitable and in order to comply with European regulations on industrial emissions. 

The move comes 18 months after Spain closed down its last coal mines, although the country remains behind on its drive to embrace renewable energies. 

It also came as experts said that coal had reached its economic “tipping point” meaning it was cheaper to build renewable energy sources than to continue operating coal-fired power stations.

“It is cheaper (today) to produce (energy) with renewables than with coal,” explained Ana Barreira, head of the International Institute for Law and the Environment (IIDMA)

She said the remaining power stations could be closed down by 2025. 

The decision was taken by the four Spanish electricity companies that own them — Naturgy, Iberdrola, Viesgo and Endesa, a Spanish subsidiary of Italy's Enel group — all of whom confirmed the closures. 

The aim was to avoid the cost of bringing them up to date to comply with a European directive on cleaning up their emissions. 

Unlike in France or Germany, the Spanish government never set a date by which such facilities were to have closed. 

These power stations collectively generated 5.16 gigawatts (GW) of power, and their closure will halve Spain's coal-fired output, reducing it to 4.7 gigawatts, the “Coal-Free Future” coalition said. 

June 30 was the last day of a transition period for such plants to comply with a European directive on industrial emissions.

The firms chose not to make the necessary investments because they were “no longer profitable,” said Greenpeace's Tatiana Nuno, saying the move had been in line with market demands. 

Most of these plants had hardly produced any electricity in the past few months, she said. 

In 2019, coal only represented 5.0 percent of Spain's total energy consumption, compared with 25 percent in 2007, the Red Electrica power grid said. 

But Spain remains far from meeting its commitment to green its energy sources, with only 17.4 percent of the total coming from renewables in 2018, the latest available Eurostat figures show.

It had committed to raising that number to 20 percent by 2020. 

Spain had been one of the pioneers of green energy back in the early 2000s, but its lightning development was slowed by the financial crisis that kicked off in 2008. 

In recent years, there has been increasing appetite for investment in green energy given the profitability of renewables, with the development of huge solar parks and Spain now ranking the fifth in the world in terms of wind power installations.

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Police operation targets illegal water tapping in Spain

More than 130 people were arrested or placed under investigation for illegal water tapping last year, Spain’s Guardia Civil police said on Wednesday following a huge operation.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park”
Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in Andalusia. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

During the year-long operation, “133 people were arrested or investigated for extracting water through more than 1,533 illegal infrastructure devices”, the police’s environmental unit said in a statement.

A similar operation in 2019 had targeted 107 people.

Spain is one of the European countries most at risk from the impact of drought caused by global warming, scientists say.

Water usage issues are often at the heart of heated political debates in Spain where intensive agriculture plays an important role in the economy.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in the southern Andalusia region, one of Europe’s largest wetlands and a Unesco World Heritage bird sanctuary.

They were also operating in “in the basins of Spain’s main rivers”.

In Doñana, police targeted 14 people and 12 companies for the illegal tapping of water for irrigation, a police spokesman said.

Ecologists regularly raise the alarm about the drying up of marshes and lagoons in the area, pointing the finger at nearby plantations, notably growing strawberries, which are irrigated by illegally-dug wells.

“The overexploitation of certain aquifers for many reasons, mainly economic, constitutes a serious threat to our environment,” the Guardia Civil said.

The European Court of Justice rapped Spain over the knuckles in June for its inaction in the face of illegal water extraction in Donana which covers more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) and is home to more than 4,000 species, including the critically endangered Iberian lynx.

According to the government’s last official estimate, which dates back to 2006, there were more than half a million illegal wells in use.

But in a 2018 study, Greenpeace estimated there were twice as many, calculating that the quantity of stolen water was equivalent to that used by 118 million people — two-and-a-half times the population of Spain.

Spanish NGO SEO/Birdlife also on Wednesday raised the alarm about the “worrying” state of Spain’s wetlands.